Seven songs, then seven other blogs

So I get a link over from Phil Freeman’s blog and discover this when I check:

Simon Reynolds roped me into this online meme:

“List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.”

Hey, I’m in!

Been thinking about this for a few hours now, though. That may sound like overthinking and it probably is, but to explain:

As I’ve said before, what’s been the key thing for me in the last couple of years has been the embrace of process over product, the act of creating and engaging with something than whatever the end result is. This applies to listening as well, in the broadest possible sense — I’ve been taking in a lot of things but I have very rarely been obsessing over a song or group or album at this point at all, which definitely is a difference in general from the past. It’s not a complete break — my obsession with VNV Nation that started around this time last year shows that much — but it is a very clear shift.

In her closing post on Friday for Idolator, Maura addressed this kind of shift in general, and it’s a most thoughtful essay, as is always the case with her. To quote:

Idolator HQ has finally hooked up its turntable post-move (hey, it only took a few months!), and as a result I’ve been listening to more vinyl. And having to change over the sides of LPs or singles has seemingly resulted in me being more engaged with what I’m listening to than, say, just putting iTunes on shuffle or even putting five CDs in a changer. It made me realize how the download-then-import model wasn’t always successful as far as getting people to remember everything lurking within their music library, although truth be told I’d also forget that I owned certain albums, too. Maybe it’s just the idea of too much stuff being out there, and the resultant data smog, that results in people hearing less, whether the “stuff” in question is on vinyl or streaming from a MySpace page.

(This quote, I thought, was also notable given my recent chafing against the tunnel-vision of music blogs: Barry Schwartz, who wrote The Paradox Of Choice, told the Phoenix New Times “Less album listening means that people aren’t forced to listen to things that don’t turn them on right away, and as a result, tastes change less.” Which certainly dovetails nicely with the thesis of the book he’s still flogging, but could it be true? I know that if I’m in the mood for background noise, I’m certainly more likely to put on Music Choice’s classic-jams-heavy R & B Hits station than something I have to really listen to. And one can’t help but wonder if that sort of comfort-listening spills over to matters of taste in newer music, etc.)

The discussion that followed on from her post is also well worth a read, and I chimed in briefly yesterday. What I think is interesting is the variety of responses, conclusions, strategies — if anything, I think it seems to confirm that rather than there being a uniform shift among the self-conscious music listener (a strange formulation, I realize, but it seems to work as well as any), there’s been a further multiplicity.

Ultimately I find this healthy — I think it’s as problematic to assume that most everyone’s on random shuffle play as it is to assume that we’re all in a modern pop universe when it comes to the songs being listened to, say. Not that Maura is claiming either, but it’s the baseline that we’re all working with now — and it’s ultimately false, and we all recognized it was false to start with! But you wouldn’t know that from the Apple ad ethos, say.

So much for indirect prologue — my seven, with links where appropriate:

  • Portishead, “We Carry On,” live from Later With Jools Holland — this was linked in my longer Bo Diddley piece some days ago but it’s good to pull it out further here, because this represents what easily was the ‘obvious’ pick for my listening this spring. Third was my preset favorite for the season if not the whole year, and this is both cool — I knew I would be thrilled and I was, greatly — and a bit problematic, since there was no knock-me-sideways surprise in full. That the album successfully showed the band reinventing its sonic identity is one thing, but it’s not like this was a new band coming out of nowhere, that there wasn’t months, years of anticipation beforehand. This all said — one hell of a song, one hell of a performance, and I can’t wait for the full tour.
  • The Cure, “Baby Rag Dog Book” — similarly, this is a case of not being surprised and being amazed anyway. But it’s also representative of what modern music fanaticism can and does allow for — the instant sharing of music everywhere, anywhere. What I’ve linked above is not the performance of the song I saw — that was at the Los Angeles show at the Hollywood Bowl (and yes, I’m well overdue to finally say something about that concert — soon, soon!) — but it gives you an imperfect taste. I’ve since been able to hear the LA performance again, though, and that’s a fine thing and another example of what I’m talking about — the new baseline more than anything else. The impact of instant access is still not fully settled into the popular consciousness, I think, but we’re almost there — the current presidential campaign may well be the final tipping point, with instant quotes and snippets and more ricocheting around YouTube and blogs just like that, as this story on Mayhill Fowler’s amazing scoops this year makes clear. And what I think about the song itself? As I muttered on ILM, it’s “THE new aggro monster rampage death track from the band….Simon Gallup’s bass starts and carries this whole thing, it’s this high-speed grinddown that halfway to an unmelodic Joey Beltram riff and is similarly momentous. And unsurprisingly the recording just can’t compete with the pin-against-the-wall feeling of hearing it live.”
  • Lloyd ft. Lil Wayne, “Girls Around the World” — Lloyd was one of those guys who I kept catching the name of but hadn’t consciously heard yet, though no doubt I’d caught stuff of his around just by being out and about (a very healthy way to hear songs in general, I will always argue). And Lil Wayne’s Lil Wayne, somebody who is so hypermaximegapraised that, frankly, I haven’t even bothered chasing down much else of his. (That may sound counterintuitive, but it’s long been the case with me that the more everyone else says some song or book or movie or the like is the best thing ever the more I’m inclined to take it as read and check out something else instead. Whether it’s willful contrarianism or just me trying to figure out what else is out there I’m still not sure.) Anyway, this all said — slamming track and the video is another example of the hyperclean video aesthetic that some corners are still trying to hold onto in the era of the fan-made YouTube clip, but in ways it’s not all that far removed from both the Portishead and Cure tracks in a conceptual sense, in that they rely on a familiarity that helps to sell the track to a predetermined fanbase that will respond well to it. In this case, it’s not just the identity of the performers but the fact that it’s “Paid in Full” getting transmogrified here, a beat reworked once again. If anything it’s a further sign that the pop world is what I’ve long been saying it is — as self-contained a subculture as all the rest, it’s just the biggest and most inclusive of them.
  • Uno, “Cinemas of the World” — Calling this song obscure understates. There may be some corner of the world where it was a hit but as far as most of the world is concerned this is beyond unknown. That’s more than all right, most songs in the world are like that to start with. There is a sole reason why I care about this song, and why I’ve been humming its unknown-to-me-before-a-couple-of-weeks-ago chorus on a regular basis now, and it’s a reflection of how the Internet’s curatorial impulse can go into overdrive in the best possible way. If you check that link to the discogs.com entry, you’ll see that said song has lead and backing vocals by one of my all-time musical heroes, Billy Mackenzie — and for the past couple of months, the Mackenzie fan list online, covering his band the Associates as well as his solo and collaborative work, have been engaged in a massive project to try and pull together all the rarities, obscurities and other one-offs that he recorded which haven’t otherwise appeared on the CD reissues and compilations. “Cinemas of the World,” both in its single and extended edits, is both a product of its time — a 1987 bit of artier industrial-funk with an orchestrated pop edge to it — and, thanks to Mackenzie and the hints of strings, something a little out of its place. The chorus in particular is a total treat, and Mackenzie’s wonderful, indescribable falsetto is at its warmest; it’s a little surprising to realize he was nailing a wonder like this for a French-released one-off when he was simultaneously engaged in recording the flawed Glamour Chase album. So the fact that we can hear it, as well as all the other recordings out there he did in the odd corners — the earliest demos, the extended mixes, more — shows how all those subcultures quietly thrive, and how we’re obviously just one of many similarly dedicated to preserving some sort of legacy for the departed.
  • “One of Those Days” by Tom T. Hall — I didn’t know about this song five minutes ago. I’ve just called it up right this second. Reason? My friend Angus sent along a recommendation and some fine thoughts about it via a private mailing, and since it is private I’ll obviously not quote it here. Tom T. Hall I know about though not as well as I could, but Angus holds a special place in his heart for Hall, having long since appreciated both his songwriting abilities in general and his deft singing voice. Hall’s sounding craggier by default but it suits the feeling of the song, a totally traditional, unapologetic and happily accepting yet still slightly melancholic meditation on the passing of time and what it means — as he says, ‘it’s one of those days where he misses Lester Flatt.’ The fact this kind of thing can happen — a friend in England suddenly alerts me to a new song across thousands of miles just like that — well, it’s a reason why I like being in this modern world just fine, for all the problems and fears and concerns. (Speaking of which, Angus specifically says another new Hall number on the site, “A Hero in Harlan,” is the best song about Iraq and Afghanistan yet recorded, and giving it an ear now…it’s damn affecting from the first lines. Listen to that too.)
  • Gavin Bryars/Philip Jeck/Alter Ego, The Sinking of the Titanic — perhaps appropriate to think on this having just talked about Sparks’s album of reworking past songs Plagiarism yesterday, but speaking from a position of relative ignorance, there seems to have been much greater allowance for reworking and reinterpreting past work in the context of classical music (as VERY broadly defined) than there have been in other fields of music. In part this is because of the nature of pop music as contextual and consensual experience — the live/remix/demo/’alternate’ take/acoustic version in pop music is always the other for the most part, set against the original. There are exceptions to this, certainly, but they show up the rule all the more clearly as a result. Whenever you hear about older figures rerecording their hits precisely because they’d have the rights to those versions instead, you’re at once sympathetic to their position and still sadly shaking your head because you know you want the ‘real’ thing. And so forth. So that someone like Bryars would happily go ahead and revisit a piece he’s recorded and released before a couple of times — original listeners would go back to the late sixties, for example, while people of ‘my’ generation would think of the 1994 version on Point Music, which notably had an accompanying remix by the Aphex Twin. This newest version, a live recording featuring both Philip Jeck and Alter Ego as indicated, extends this allegiance with the world of experimental electronic music while still very much sounding like Bryars’s vision — a useful pointer on the nature of how you can rework, reinterpret, continue to explore rather than trap something in amber. As I mentioned earlier, it’s all about process over product, and this is a product that captures a process — a useful compromise.
  • Paul Stanley, track one of People, Let Me Get This Off My Chest — aka, “ALLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLRIGHT…TORONTO!!!!! YOU FEEL GOOD??? Alright, then LISTEN!…you know we may be under clear blue SKIESTH but you know, it’s getting a little…COOL OUT tonight, but that ain’t gonna stop usth! Cause if we try hard enough we’re gonna GET THIS PLAAAACE…I SAY WE GONNA GET THIS PLAAAACETH…HOTTER THAN HELLgaspgulp…”

    I don’t need to say anything else, I hope.

My chosen seven blogs to get to contribute to the meme — crossed fingers they all agree! [EDIT: and it’s happening so I’ll update the blog links below directly to their entries as they’re posted.] The listing is alphabetical by blog title:

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Bo Diddley’s beat goes on

He passed today, with family and friends near him, never fully recovered from a stroke. He seemed like he was around forever and would always be. And that was the signal mark of what he did.

A few quotes first:

  • Michael Lydon, Boogie Lightning: “The humor is not just the jokes; it’s Bo’s whole stance. He obviously enjoys making records, and that enjoyment comes through in the music.”
  • Jimi Hendrix: “…if you want the backbone of the real pioneering thing which Clapton and the others are into – that’s it. Bo Diddley made a great contribution to rock.”
  • Bo Diddley: “I made ‘Bo Diddley’ in ’55, they started playing it, and everybody freaked out. Caucasian kids threw Beethoven into the garbage can….I opened the door for a lot of people, and they just ran through and left me holding the knob….I am owed. I’ve never got paid. A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun.

What to say, really. Where to begin.

Over on Idolator, M. Matos’s comment puts it all simply but accurately: “…probably did as much for guitar and rhythm as anyone in rock history.” On ILM, Scott Seward: “I LOVE YOU BO YOU HELPED INVENT THE WORLD I LIVE IN! ROCK ON!” There’s going to be more, much more.

Keep those words above from him in mind, though, first and foremost, about the slam-bang impact and the fact that for him renumeration was always going to be a hard-fought struggle, especially in a country where he was born in a place where the deck was long stacked against him just because of who he was. It isn’t everything about his life, but it’s essential for knowing what he thought about it all — about how in response to any and all the tributes he received, and all the ones he’ll be getting now, he noted that “it didn’t put no figures in my checkbook.” This to-the-point story from the St. Petersburg Times back in 2002 is well worth a read, and your time. To quote:

“All that I own here, I got by penny-pinching,” he says. “This is bought and paid for, all 76 acres. Don’t nobody else own this. Only things that can get me out of here are Uncle Sam and death.”

He estimates his losses at $50-million.

“Ain’t no way in hell I’ll get past the anger feeling until I see some checks,” he says. “I can’t be 21 years old no more. A lot of people ask me, why you angry about this still? What the hell you mean?”

And with that sad fact noted — what a life. WHAT a sound.

I was talking just now with a coworker who had seen him a few years back at a blues festival and he noted that his set was ‘a lot like all those fifties guys still touring, just the basic thing.’ I’ve no doubt of that, really — the living hell of those circuits, especially if that’s one of the few ways to guarantee a steady source of income, must seem mesmerizingly banal after a while, standard introductions and expected reactions, retracing the past once more. It traps a sound in amber that…

Well, words fail.

Mention Bo Diddley and the idea is guitar for many, thanks to things like his many famous poses with his favorite instruments, the footage, the things like the Nike ad campaign with Bo Jackson twenty years back, stuff like that. But as Matos notes, it’s about rhythm. The phrase ‘the Bo Diddley beat’ says it all — Diddley didn’t rock. He SWUNG.

And he did it by keeping his ears open — taking advantage of the fact that he was where he was, America, in all its imperfect glory. The many interviews he did over the years must have provided the well-worn feeling to him as well, the same questions and figuring out how to handle the responses, but here’s a sample that still illustrates well:

His interest in music began at an early age and he studied classical violin for several years through his church. One day, however, Diddley and his cousin were horsing around and he broke his little finger, ending his classical music career.

“He threw me on my ass,” says Diddley, now 77. “I fell on my hand and broke my little finger. I had to quit because my finger wouldn’t fall in the right place.”

Diddley is glad, though, for that classical training.

“It gave me a different approach to music,” he says. “Now I have to brag a little bit; I’m something else. I come up with some weird shit.”

This melting pot of strange stuff included bits of classical, African and church music, R&B and the blues. “I put all that stuff together and mixed it up,” says Didldley, who would also become a truly gifted lyricist. “I was just lucky enough to do that.”

Bragging a little bit, now there’s an understatement — he boasted for his entire career but he did so in the two best ways possible — with humor that just as easily offset the frustrations as it did provide a calling card, and more simply, with the knowledge that he was completely on the money. Put all that ‘strange stuff’ together into the Bo Diddley beat and what you have is an extremity that is simultaneously futuristic and ancient. It’s still extreme.

Context is important here. Here’s a comparative example — Bill Monroe and his impact on music via bluegrass. Sound strange? Not at all — here’s a basic summary that illustrates it:

Of all musical genres, there is no other that evokes the traditional heart and soul of North America more than Bluegrass. It embodies a diversity of folk music and instrumentation from around the world yet is distinctively American. While the Blues was evolving in the American South, Bluegrass was developing in remote regions of Appalachia, and for centuries, this “mountain music” evolved from indigenous musical traditions ranging in style from the spiritual to the comical. Remarkably, it wasn’t until the mid 20th century that mountain music was consolidated, refined and labeled as Bluegrass by way of a timely convergence of musical personalities and new technologies. These new technologies were the phonograph and radio, which, for the first time, brought rural music to people all over America.

Around the same time, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass boys hit the scene appearing on the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 and, by way of these ‘new technologies’ and a very active touring schedule came to be well known as one of the most popular bands out of Nashville. As Bill was from Kentucky, the name, Bluegrass, came from his state motto; “The Bluegrass State”. Bill Monroe’s sound was unique at the time because of its hard driving and powerful traditional acoustic instruments and its distinctive vocal harmonies. After experimenting with different instrumental combinations, he settled on the mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass for his band. When Earl Scruggs, a banjo player from North Carolina joined the band in 1946 with his distinct 3-finger picking style, it further energized the public and helped define the Bluegrass genre.

Now think about what Bo Diddley was doing similarly — pulling it all in, putting it all together, as he heard and figured things out. Some extended quotes Neil Strauss’s story on him a couple of years back, along with some context:

“I was out to destroy the audience,” Diddley says, recalling the roots of his rhythm. “I wanted to destroy ’em, just make the toughest dude in the crowd pat his foot. I’d find a groove to get ’em by watching feet, and once I got one guy moving, I’d start working on the dude sitting next to him.”

His style, he says, came from playing his guitar as if it were a violin. Lady Bo tells it differently. “Have you ever seen his hands?” she asks. “His fingers are so thick he has to play rhythm rather than complicated leads.”

By the time he was seventeen, Diddley was busking in the streets. “We used to carry a washtub bass around and, since we didn’t have no drums, we made noise on a board,” he recalls. “But then I learned about a paper bag. Put a paper bag in your pants and then you can hit it to make a beat.”

Later, for percussion, he found a sand dancer who made noise by scraping his feet in a patch of sand. They played together on street corners as the Hipsters. “I was creating my own thing,” Diddley says of the band. “I wanted to make a few bucks.”

“I made the first tremolo, and I didn’t know what the hell I did,” Diddley says. “A guy I grew up with was into electronics, so we’d go to this old Army surplus place, looking through all the electronic bullshit for something that would vibrate the sound. I eventually went to the junkyard and found some parts out of an old car. Later, I made it out of an old windup clock. I had it fixed so it would run faster. I was just breaking the circuit to get that sound. But then Diamature out of Toledo made one. That’s when I got the thing and messed it up and bent it to adjust the speed to make it go faster. That’s how I got it to go whoomp-whoomp-whoomp, and I built my career or my style around that.”

Hambone, also called patting juba, originated on the plantations after slaves were forbidden to use drums. So instead they created percussion by clapping their hands, stomping their feet and slapping their chests and thighs. It made its way to popular culture in minstrel shows and vaudeville. And, just as Bo Diddley was finessing his sound, the trend hit the mainstream again when Red Saunders, a drummer who had also moved to Chicago from the South as a teenager, scored the novelty hit of 1952 with “Hambone.” Soon, everyone from children on television shows to street performers to the country star Tennessee Ernie Ford was slapping body parts and singing “Hambone.”

Diddley denies that he simply adopted hambone to the guitar, claiming that he was playing his beat in the streets before the Red Saunders song. Though he has said that he invented the beat while trying to play the Gene Autry song “Jingle Jangle Jingle,” he told me that the inspiration came from church. “I heard something like that when I was twelve or thirteen in a sanctified church. I’d peek through the curtain, and they just had a tambourine and an old raggedy piano, and these old ladies was just letting loose.”

The point of all these observations is to note that this is process at work — process, not product. Something that comes together and revamps and recombines. By the time we hear it, or hear the impact of it down the line, we do so in a way that is fixed when here you get a sense of somebody living life and taking everything from it — hustling to make cash, getting people to move, making an individual mark. Then you put it all together into a form that gets recorded, that sounds of its time, that bleeds and crackles and rumbles because that’s how it would be heard, in the same way that someone like Monroe put it all together and then took advantage of those technologies available to him to record something that then became fixed, a quality, a starting point, a baseline that was always shape-shifting and unstable.

I could just as easily say what I’ve said about, say, James Brown — and that would be the point, and I’ve no problem in holding Diddley’s work in such high esteem. In both cases it would be foolish and simplistic to limit their individual work to a time when ‘things were done better’ or something simple like that — the point is that these were creations in context, not automatically great nor having a special validity due to their age now. There’s stuff happening right now blowing minds in ways that won’t be recognized fully until down the road, and there’ll be tales of ripoffs and failed recognition and hollow praise that doesn’t really provide the needed payback.

Bo Diddley’s creations in context keep unfolding in the most amazing ways — the obituaries rightly mention the big hits that specifically referenced what he did, from Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” to U2’s “Desire.” In my earlier post I linked to Hendrix, the New York Dolls, the Cramps, Spacemen 3, Jane’s Addiction. But here’s something for you that shows how wide the impact was to this day, and from a band that in their own way have created something in context that ended up being a new baseline.

Portishead’s new album Third has a song on it called “We Carry On,” and comparison points are often made to the Silver Apples as a source, among other acts. But give a listen and ask yourself — where’d that beat first recombine, where’d that tension first explode:

In my first post I linked to a variety of Bo Diddley pieces, so go back there, play a few, and consider.

There’s way more to say — talking about the work of the Duchess alone would require a separate post. Others will say it with more knowledge, awareness and better words.

But to end on the note I did in the first post — to quote the title of a song by another Diddley-obsessed act, the Jesus and Mary Chain: “Bo Diddley is Jesus.” And to quote another Idolator comment, from Chris Molanphy: “I’ll bet he’s referring to himself in the third person to St. Peter right now.”

Sounds about right.

[ADDENDUM: found this story elsewhere on WordPress which well deserves a link and a quote:

I saw Bo Diddley perform live on four different occasion, but none in the last 10 years or so. The first time was at Peabody’s in Cleveland during the summer of 1984. My friend Casey and I arrived early, which wasn’t really necessary because even a quarter century ago Bo was way past his career prime (although nowhere near past his performance prime). We were hanging out at the bar and it was empty except for one middle-aged black guy sitting at the other end, who turned out to be the man himself. It was one of only two times in my life I’ve asked a celebrity if I could pose for a picture with him. (Hunter Thompson was the other.)

Bo’s records are awesome, but he really excelled live. Even in his 50 and 60s, he was an energetic, dynamic entertainer, kicking his leg out while riffing on his square guitar. The really cool thing was Bo never traveled with a band. He would always just pick up a local bar band in whatever town he happened to be in to back him up. It wasn’t like Bo’s songs are particularly hard to learn, despite their brilliance. Still, I always got a kick out of watching Bo briefly stop a performance to teach the band a song they’d never heard before, and of course they’d all nail it less than a minute later.

Keeping it going, on and on. Everyone who ever backed him up got lucky, and I hope they all knew why — but I’m sure they did.)

Thoughts on listening to “Third”

Not really thoughts about Third itself, though I’ll have some of those too. There’s always something nice about not having to review something, consciously or not.

If I had actually wanted to listen to Portishead‘s new album some time ago, I could have. A while back I mentioned the leak and how I didn’t have it at the time; in between then and now someone had offered the mp3s my way. But I decided against it for a variety of reasons, one of which was, quite simply, quality of the sound.

Pardon my quoting myself from my Marooned essay but a key part applies, talking about why I never ripped Loveless for listening:

I don’t want it playing out of my computer for heaven’s sake, I want it out of the stereo speakers, the great old ones from the ’60s, that my dad got as a young sailor and which I now own. They’re monstrous and clunky, but dang if they don’t make everything I play through them sound great.

I would never describe myself as an audiophile or purist, first of all. Further, that was written before I finally got a better set of speakers for my computer earlier this year, and the bass punch on them is significantly better than what I had before. Yet there are albums or expectations of listening to them that hold sway still — some albums I want to hear first and foremost, and maybe only, through my stereo setup, through those speakers. And even if CDs or any other form of ‘full’ file sounds are still in the end reductions of what was recorded to a particular and passable medium rather than some pure state, it’s still something where I’d like to hear the full details in many cases.

There’s also a sense of not ruining your Christmas surprise, or the equivalent — one can wait on these things to the actual release date. Heck, I didn’t even rush out and get it on the day of official release — I waited until pay day a couple of days later and got it then. I’ve waited a decade for this album, a couple more days wouldn’t hurt, though I admit I was getting impatient yesterday.

I think I should have given into my first impulse and listened to it with all the lights off — sounds like it deserves that kind of close darkness. I did wait, even though I bought it at lunch, to listen to it at home first and not at work, and when the sun was done and it was dark outside. Seemed far more right in that way, and does even more now that it’s complete. But I wanted to match up the track titles to what I was listening to, so one lamp had to be on.

A lot of stuff I listen to while doing something else, reading, composing e-mail, whatever — the argument that there’s a pure state of listening to something is a bit much these days, I think, and the likes of Erik Satie had already undermined that from a musical end one hundred years back (and I’d be willing to bet he had more antecedents than most realize). The act of simply listening and letting your mind drift is as much a willful act of specific concentration as anything else, and that there’s a desire for this kind of active engagement is understandable both on the part of creator and consumer. Reality functions as it does, though — especially in a situation where, say, what the creator deems to be a frivolous element is heard by a consumer as a core part of the piece, or a similar situation in reverse.

So I concentrated and drifted simultaneously, engaged but thinking laterally as I do. Some of my thoughts were extremely random — for instance, how the conclusion of “Machine Gun” feels like an inversion of the end theme for Blade Runner, with the beats given overwhelming prominence over the doomed melancholia of the keyboards. I’m sure there’s a bias given my watchings/rewatchings of late, but when the concluding synth part started, an almost-balm for the relentless punctuation of the beats, the contrast reminded me of that earlier piece almost irresistibly — in large part, I’d guess, since that does conclude a situation where nothing is assured for the characters involved. Similarly “Machine Gun” feels like something final but unresolved, not abbreviated, more like this is the kind of music I might put on in six months time depending on the state of things because little else will capture my feelings of collapse so readily.

Then there was “Threads,” with its building then solitary and then even louder air-raid siren guitar, an approximation, in much simpler fashion, of the V’ger theme from Star Trek: The Motion Picture — something pitched down, ominous, arcing out of the sky and glowering down at any observers who might be around. A few friends of mine have already made comparisons to the notorious BBC telefilm of that name from the 1980s and I don’t think it inappropriate, it definitely sounds like a stroke of doom at work. There’s also a sense of something from “Stanlow” by OMD, somehow…just. A conclusion, an end, an abruptness (though not as abrupt as other things).

Then there’s “Deep Water,” and for all the bits that I have read about it being some sort of folk tribute surely it’s more obviously something 20s and music-hall like, with that ukelele or whatever is being used — theatrical, just like the best of what Portishead have always done, the more so because it turns up between the obsessive rumble of “We Carry On” and “Machine Gun” and its pulsing anger.

All of which is to say — yes, quite an album, QUITE an album. Pretty much goes in as my favorite of the year so far and it will take some doing to knock it out. I hope it does, in a way, because that would mean something surprising has come along, something truly unexpected. Until then, though, I know what I’ll have no problem replaying for a long while to come.

Yes, the Portishead leaked; no, I don’t have it.

In fact I’m content to hold off and wait — a little anticipation is a good thing. But! You should read Jess’s initial impressions over at Idolator — measured yet enthusiastic all the same. To quote a fave bit:

Many of Portishead’s new tracks could never be mistaken for the work of their blunted copyists, the spawn of a sound as unfortunately pernicious as the Vedder yarl or Brian Setzer’s love of the greatest generation. (Not the Bristolians’ fault, obviously.) But Beth Gibbons’ inimitably lovesickened voice and the band’s permanent frown mean old fans won’t be worrying they downloaded the wrong album. And though some might gripe the trio is stuck in a moody rut, really, who was waiting for the first sunny entry in the Portishead discography?

That said–and it’s not entirely surprising if you’ve been following the group’s individual breadcrumb trails during its long downtime–there are a few overtures toward the pastoral on 3 like “Deep Water,” a sketch for banjo and a murmuring Gibbons playing drowsy English folk princess chilling lakeside rather than dread soul siren cruising noir cityscapes. That said, “Deep Water” is followed by “Machine Gun,” which ditches the crackling turntable loops of old for grimy, staccato electro rhythms that shoot holes in the walls of your chill out room. Nothing on 3 is as violent as the band’s been hinting during the album’s long, on-stage coming out party, but it’s certainly raw and uneasy, often in unexpected ways.

I am happy.

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Third time’s the charm (just pre-empting all the bad headlines)

Among a wide, wide swath of friends and acquaintances, there’s only one album of note coming out in the next few months, one return to touring, one band, one.

To say that people have been waiting on the return of Portishead understates. One friend of mine confessed he’d been checking their website for years upon years, despite the fact that nothing had changed on it. Others openly wondered if they’d ever see them live. The list went on.

I considered myself a lucky guy (and still do) because I’d been able to see them live, twice — first, on their short American tour for Dummy. The setting was the American Legion Hall in LA, vaulted and appropriately mysterious if the lighting was right, and it was. Geoff Barrows span a good hip-hop set beforehand as the floor filled, then the band’s short film To Kill a Dead Man screened on a side wall. The band then took the stage, all dressed soberly in black, Beth Gibbons the exception, performing with a certain wide-eyed intensity that seemed caught between stage fright and awe. It was a wonderful show, a recreation of Dummy with slight variations. Afterward, I asked Perry Farrell a question and was directed to Kevin Haskins. That kind of evening.

Then there was the second time.

Santa Monica Civic Center had long had a reputation for good shows — there’s a live show David Bowie performed there in the Ziggy Stardust years which has since been heavily bootlegged and/or legitimately released (sorta) — but for me it’ll always be memorable for the second time I saw Portishead, this time touring for their self-titled followup. They’d already performed an earlier date a friend of mine saw and had raved about, a good sign — and of course I already liked them, and very much adored the second album.

The crowd was, still, the most mixed crowd I’d ever seen in LA that wasn’t at a festival (and in fact was far more mixed than most of the festival crowds I’ve seen). Goths rubbing up against hip-hop freaks, ravers up against punks, subcultural styles in a massive soundclash, backgrounds representative of a real LA rather than the airbrushed and bleached version. This was a band that effortlessly crossed imagined boundaries just by being itself, by combining and recombining and more.

The lights went down, a chaotic hip-hop mix and chopped up movie of road scenes culminating in views of the sign identifying the town that gave the band its name provided the introduction, the band hit the stage and…

For the next hour and a half, two hours, however long it was, that band owned that crowd, owned the world. And they didn’t do it by being polite, coffee-table soulful or whatever else one might want to call it. They were loud, aggressive, mean, possessed. They took the dark shadows, the twisted threats implied in all their music, brought them to the fore. They all *moved* on stage, like few bands I’ve seen, fully into their music, the grooves, a threatening storm, a series of explosions. Barrow nuts on the turntables, Gibbons stalking and singing, Adrian Utley and the rest of the band not holding back either.

We in the audience would have stayed there forever if we could.

Third is due out in two months time. While we all wait, read this interview from the Guardian and take this to heart:

The roots of Barrow’s allergic reaction to the sounds he once loved probably lay in the unasked-for ubiquity of his band’s debut album. At some point around the time Dummy won the 1995 Mercury Prize, Portishead found that the music they had lovingly fashioned from scraps of Lalo Schifrin’s old film scores had suddenly (when featured in the background on aspirational twenty-something TV drama This Life) become the soundtrack to a mid-Nineties media lifestyle fantasy.

‘They turned our songs into a fondue set,’ he observes, disgustedly, more than a decade on.

This combined with the memory of that long-distant show and other bits of information I’ve heard and seen leads me to think that Third is going to be a goddamn monster of an album.

Get ready.